Archive for the ‘Europe 2018’ Category

Cycling by the Göta Canal

30 July 2018

Opphem to Söderköping

Feeling pampered and refreshed by Lisse & Roger we packed our bags, got back on our bikes and headed off towards Stockholm.


Our back road wound through forest, farmland and lakes; all strewn with boulders left by receding glaciers. They range from car-sized, to house-sized and bigger. They are too big to move and must be worked around. Only the trees seem up to the task of breaking them up and pushing them aside but that takes time.


We found ourselves back in the outskirts of Linköping before joining an impressive cycling arterial heading towards the Göta Canal at Norsholm. We ended up on a wide sealed shoulder on Route 210 before finding a quieter alternative.

We spent a while relaxing under a chestnut tree by a lock on the canal at Norsholm. As if a canal lock isn’t fascinating enough this one has extra value as a road and the fast train between Linköping and Stockholm crosses the canal at ground level! So, the lock master needs to ensure that a 300 km/h train isn’t approaching before lifting the railway bridge AND OVERHEAD CABLES for masted boats to pass. As the bridge lifts, the catenary wires droop and the power cables dangle less than half a metre from the ground. I wonder whether the power is isolated temporarily. There are small DO NOT TOUCH THE CABLES signs in Swedish. The lock master then yells to the boatie to get a wriggle on – fair enough, I say.


We cycled a few kilometres on a tow path before heading into the forest as thunder and lightning crash around us. We were immediately besieged by pesky swarms of small flies. They wouldn’t settle but hovered near our faces and we were glad we packed our fly nets.

The locks that don’t involve Sweden’s rail system seem to be staffed by Swedish university students. They wear hi-viz outfits and wireless controls around their necks. We chatted with one lock keeper who was slightly embarrassed to tell us her lock involved a meagre 5cm level change – necessitated by a surveying error perhaps. She agreed that her job could be a bit boring sometimes but the boaties provided entertainment. She restrained herself in their presence but she and her friends often enjoyed a laugh at their expense at the end of the day.

We’re staying in a youth hostel by the canal on the outskirts of Söderköping which is the most charming of the Swedish towns we’ve seen so far with an unusual city hall, old trading buildings and a long wharf. The hostel is a traditional Swedish building, timber-clad and timber-lined with small doorways and low ceilings. It’s Falu red on the outside and white and pale green inside. It feels like a big dolls’ house.


We are only a few kilometres from the end of the canal at Mem.

A foggy day from Söderköping

31 July 2018

Söderköping to Nyköping

After a self-catered breakfast in the Söderköping youth hostel we cycled off in fog – thick, warm fog that hung around for an hour or two. Suffice to say it was pleasant cycling and a totally different experience to our recent sunny days.


We arrived at the ferry near Skenäs with a stinky rubbish truck and considered waiting for the next crossing but that would have meant an hour’s wait and the only cafe was on the other side of the fjord, so we pedalled onboard and stood upwind. The cafe was disappointing but the swim soon after was deliciously cool.


Our way then became quite tough with many short, steep hills to climb but, mercifully, corresponding descents followed.


We had a good lunch at Nävekvarn. The Systrama Brådhes Cafe by the harbour was the best eatery we’ve encountered on the road in Sweden. We shared Swedish meatballs and smoked salmon.

We were obliged to take a fairly major secondary road most of the way to Nyköping. It started with a wide shoulder and sparse traffic but later we had to share the lane with too many 80km/h vehicles. It was a relief to turn onto a cycle track for the last few kilometres.

Nyköping is a compact city with a large, pleasant and car-free centrum. There are quite a few pretty, old buildings that share the precinct with new and remodeled ones.


View from hotel room – we are staying in a huge wellness hotel that appears to have been a Sunlight soap factory or similar in the past

During the 20th century the Swedes seem to have valued modernisation over conservation in many places. Perhaps the climate is so extreme that thermal performance trumps other considerations.

Made it to Stockholm

1 August 2018

Nykoping to Stockholm via Vagnharad, Skansen, Varsta

We took the 219 road through the countryside – no towns, shops, cafes – this is the Swedish outback!


Along the way we came across people dressed in historic costumes with Swedish draught horses  and carts. They were on a trek to raise money for children’s cancer.

At Vagnharad we found a supermarket for cold drinks and a cardamom bun – it was another hot day – then turned off towards Skansen where there is a ferry crossing. Here we met Lukas and Alex who are riding from Berlin to Nordkapp. They are raising money for UNICEF. They were very friendly and offered to host us in Berlin, except that they will probably not be back there in time.


After this we went on to Varsta where we stopped for a cooling swim in the lake of Malmsjon before the final push into Stockholm. This was achieved almost entirely on bike paths but it was a long way, it was really hot, it was hilly, we were tired and Stockholm revealed only its grittier aspects. I hope we can appreciate it more after a rest!

We recovered with a cold shower followed by a beer beside Mariatorget, a leafy park where everyone comes out to play boules. There must have been a dozen games on the go! We are staying in a tiny Airbnb apartment – it’s about half the size of our Sunlight Hotel room.



2 August 2018

It’s hot in Stockholm and it didn’t cool down last night. However many activities, as well as recovery from yesterday, have been achieved. First was breakfast with my nephew Jarrah who has been travelling around the Baltic and Scandinavia, mainly using the power of his own legs as he is an orienteering champ. We met at Cykelcafé Le Mond where they love US cycling great Greg LeMond and give you 10 percent off if you arrive by bike. We pleaded Jarrah’s case as he had run all the way from his hostel.


Next was swimming in the harbour at an area we spotted on the way in to the city yesterday – water quality is good, temperature perfect, plenty of swimmers.


Around this area were many small garden allotments surrounded by picket fences that were being painted in an indolent kind of way by a team of young people who seemed more interested in their phones than the application of paint.

More rest, haircut and shopping followed before a touristic expedition to the Abba Museum, located beside Stockholm’s Gröne Lund amusement park. We love Abba but not enough to pay over $A80 entry price so we admired it from the outside.


Stockholm buses and many shops are sporting rainbow flags. They seem to be the remnant of a few recent events. Most recently, there was a Pride March here on 30 July but Stockholm has been sharing EuroPride 2018 with Gothenburg during July. Earlier in the month there were pro-diversity demonstrations in response to the appearance of a Swedish white supremacist group at a multi-party political event.

An evening walk took us past the boule players again – the games are intense, the standard of play is high and it’s good entertainment for onlookers.


We walked to Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm, with hundreds of tourists, cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops.


We have booked to sail on Friday’s ferry to Turku, Finland. The weather forecast is for a slightly cooler day tomorrow.

Skulking underground

3 August 2018


What to do on our last day in Stockholm?

Since it was still hot we decided on a tour of the underground to examine the extensive public artwork for which the stations are renowned. It was delightfully cool, especially in the deeper sections.

Hewn out of the stable granite and gneiss bedrock of the city, many of the newer stations expose the bare walls and the concourses are huge caverns. Many of the stations have been artistically themed. We overstayed our 75 minute metro tickets but nobody seemed to mind.

We started and ended the day swimming at the bathing area in the lake on the southern shores of Södermalm. It was crowded in the evening but quiet early in the morning. There are summer stalls set up for eating and drinking and playing boules. They were doing a brisk business.


Viking Line

4 August 2018

Stockholm to Turku, Finland by ferry

A slightly cool breeze blew as we boarded the Viking Line ferry, Grace, this morning.

Our long (11 hours) ferry ride was impressive in many ways. The scenery was amazing as we passed thousands of rocky islands of all sizes, some with little room to spare on either side of the boat. Any that are large enough are inhabited.

The ferry provides for everyone. You can begin on your first beer just after boarding at 7.45am! There are several levels of cabins and reserved seating which we did not use. There are bars, cafes and an all you can eat buffet where patrons are requested to avoid food waste and ‘eat as much as you desire but only fill up your plate with what you bare (sic) to eat’. There is also a casino, pokies, night club with live band (open during the daytime), bingo, children’s entertainment, on deck pedal car track and Twister game and duty free shopping.

The ferry called in at Mariehamn (nicely executed 3 point turn to back in to the ramp) and that was when we found out that Åland is in Finland, not Sweden. On board we observed several Finnish Roma, indentifiable by their distinctive clothing – the women wear long velvet skirts with a kind of hoop just below waist level that give them an unusal line!

We arrived in Turku at 7pm and found a lively riverside beer and food festival in progress.


King’s Road from Turku

5 August 2018

Turku to Salo, Finland

Our digs last night were an Airbnb room in Oskari’s 5th floor apartment in Turku, small and stuffy due to the weather, but spacious compared to our place in Stockholm.


Turku style!

The day began with grey skies and enough drizzle to make us wet. We took the 110 road, the old highway with a nice bike path, out of town. We spoke to a young woman who confirmed our proposed direction. She said that last summer they had 2 days when the temperature exceeded 25C, this summer over 40 days of 25C+.

Traffic avoidance took us to Paimio and then to Hakala where we were inspired, by a sign indicating coffee, to stop at Tromperin Kestikivari. This is a historic house that shows aspects of country life in Finland from the past. We were fortunate to find two young women inside providing hot drinks and cakes. Sofia (trainee hairdresser) and Ada-Lotta (about to commence studies in medicine) were running the cafe as a holiday job. They were short of customers so were pleased to see us. Sofia gave us a brochure about the King’s Road (Kuningkaantie), our intended route that will take us to Helsinki and then on to Vyborg.


As we were about to ride away from the cafe, a heavily laden cyclist came speeding past. This was Christian from Frankfurt, who is doing a similar route to us but in the opposite direction and at a greater velocity. He told us that he had a lot of rain in Poland, broke a tooth on a hard Russian biscuit, found Russian traffic a bit challenging and made it from St Petersburg to Vyborg (130km) in one day. We hope to avoid all of the above!


We are now at Lehmirannan Lomakeskus (Leaf Beach Hotel according to Google), a modest country resort in a beautiful location by a lake and surrounded by forest. It’s a kind of hostel with activities, swimming, exercise and wellness aimed at retirees. An old bloke is playing tunes on the button accordion in the cafe and the Finnish retirees are all singing along. But they don’t provide dinner here so we have to make do with cafe snacks and save up for breakfast as we are 13km south of the nearest town, Salo. We rowed across the lake in the hope of finding a kiosk but no luck – only a big sandy beach with lots of kids jumping into the water off diving platforms unsupervised by any lifeguards.

Finland – best country!

6 August 2018

Salo to Lohja, Finland

Finland is regarded as one of the best countries in which to live. As a non-expert on Finnish social policy I have heard that they provide excellent family support services (heard of the baby box?), place a high value on education and hold teachers in high esteem. They have good public transport services with bus stops along almost every sealed road to benefit rural dwellers and to feed train services. Finns are proud to pay taxes that we might consider rather high because they know that they will be well spent and benefit the population.


This morning we left the retirees’ resort after eating a substantial breakfast and making friends with the button accordion player and with Sarah, the singing teacher and mother of 6, who wants to take her family on bike riding holidays.

We travelled on quiet country roads through fields of wheat, barley and beet, along gravel roads and forest tracks, then a secondary road with a low to moderate volume of traffic.

Our coffee stop was at Karjalohja, a small town with several cafes and a large church with the bells pealing.

Our accommodation tonight is at Lylyisten Kartano, a couple of km off the road near Lohja. It is a low-brow establishment near a lake with several cottages as well as rooms in a large building. The proprietor seemed rather fierce as we cycled up to meet her outside the office and she confirmed that there was no food or beer available. Fortunately, after a rest, a trip of about 3km brought us to a small supermarket where the staff member kindly helped us to identify the items we wanted – the milk and yoghurt sections can be confusing. We have now cooked our first meal since leaving home!

Tail wind to Helsinki

7 August 2018

Lohja to Helsinki, Finland

We joined the VR railway workers for morning coffee at the old Lohja railway station, then a brisk tail wind blew us in to Helsinki.

We are staying in a huge house with large garden on the island of Kulosaari where Hannu and his household have welcomed us. We have planning and organising to do for the next stretch into Russia – no time to write more!

Travel dilemmas

8 August 2018

Helsinki, Finland

#1 – Ian lost his jacket, left behind at the Chengdu restaurant last night, now retrieved.

#2 – if we leave Helsinki tomorrow and arrive in Vyborg, Russia, on Saturday we will have to sleep on a park bench, therefore train assistance is needed to get there on Friday and this was more complicated than we expected, but everything has now been arranged.

Our hosts gave us some Helsinki recommendations for today so we began by breakfasting at Karl Fazer Cafe in the city centre, established in 1891 and still providing a delicious buffet breakfast.


A 5 piece busking band (2 trumpets, drums, tuba and saxophone) were playing nearby so we listened to their versions of an Abba classic, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and Sunny. They were pretty good!


Then we took a short ferry ride to Suomenlinna, an island with a fortifications and military history as well as a good view of Helsinki. The Finnish Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral is a major landmark with its green roof and golden onion domes. We went inside to see the impressive painted decorations covering much of the walls and ceiling and pictures of saints.


Last on the program was a place recommended by both Jarrah and Hannu – the Sompasauna, a free unofficial sauna built and operated by volunteers in the most grungy industrial location at the far end of an old harbour that is currently under major redevelopment. We chatted with a Finnish man who told us about the elephant sculpture as well as about the etiquette of the sauna. Ian felt that he had been roasted enough during the hot weather of late, but I stripped down (not off) and went in to join 3 others in the 75 degree heat. That was intense but good. Better in winter though I reckon!

Going east

9 August 2018

Helsinki to Kouvola by train – Kouvola to Kotka by bike

Our Warmshowers host Hannu is a photographer, among many other talents. Here are the results of a photo session is his garden this morning!


We had time before taking our 1.19pm train to visit the Sibelius Monument in a park near the city centre. Note to others intending to do this: go early in the morning and beat the rush! It was seriously overrun with tourists who had arrived in large buses and then climbed on and draped themselves over the bust of Sibelius. Many photographs and selfies were taken! Two young cellists put on a free performance and played well. The sculpture is by Finnish artist Eila Hiltunen – not really to my taste.


Our train ride was excellent –  free wifi, train left exactly on time, bikes in a special storage area. Because we were unable to take an earlier train our day was back-to-front with the riding part at the end. We had to cover just under 60km after leaving Kouvola at 3pm to travel to Kotka on the coast. It was warm and sunny with a cool breeze, flat terrain, low traffic, plenty of bike paths and an unremarkable but pleasant route through the Finnish countryside.

Kotka is an interesting town with a huge modern maritime museum. We had a beer in a grungy bar and observed a well-attended community singing session led by a musical duo (guitar and squeeze box) in the main square. We are accommodated in a budget AirBnB run by Igor who speaks only Russian – getting us into the vibe for the week ahead!


Into Россию

10 August 2018

Kotka to Torfyanovka

We made an early start but still had a chance to greet Igor with dobroye utro before we left.

A neighbourhood supermarket provided us with breakfast necessities and a neatly manicured park between a smart athletics stadium and the river provided shade, a polished granite picnic table and perfect conditions for a simple breakfast.


Track and field athletics is popular in Finland with many stadia and prime time TV coverage featuring lythe and muscular Nordic athletes.

We enjoyed a splendid cycleway almost all the way to Hamina on the Gulf of Finland. Soon after, we rejoined the King’s Road which provided perfect cycling through rolling farmlands and forest to Vaalimaa on the Russian border.


We sang the hymn from Finlandia as a parting gesture to the Finns as we approached the border.

We sailed through Finnish and Russian passport control after remembering, in the nick of time, the correct answer to the trick question on the immigration card about visa sponsorship. The border guards waved us forward to the front of the vehicle queues. Bicycles rule!

We’d chanced upon a quiet time with only short queues heading east but the long, stationary line of trucks trying to head west made us think of those foolish Brexiteers and their self-destructive decision.

It is immediately obvious that we’re in a different country and not just because of internet access issues. There are no neatly manicured parks or polished granite picnic tables.

We’re staying in an AirBnB in a settlement adjacent to the border and life looks pretty tough. Nearby is a decrepit sandy and weedy soccer pitch where the local team was training as we arrived. I think the AirBnB tariff will represent handy income for our host.

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Food and beer at the 24-hour supermarket/restaurant was cheap and quite good enough.

Gulf of Finland

11 August 2018

Vladimir’s house is one of the newest in Torfyanovska and not quite finished. Hope he can get it done before winter sets in.


Yesterday was pretty warm and it was the same today. We had a long ride down the highway to Vyborg but there was a shoulder of about 1m in width and the traffic was not too bad. Blueberry sellers set up stalls along the roadside hoping for passing trade but most vehicles are travelling too fast to stop for them.


Soon after setting off we saw a cyclist ahead of us. We had time for a quick chat as we caught up. He was Sergei, travelling without panniers or proper cycling shoes, but covering big distances. He was aiming to reach St Petersburg today – that’s about 200km. Originally from Russia, he now works in a nuclear power plant in Bavaria.


On the approach into Vyborg there is a high bridge giving good views of the marshy waters of the Gulf of Finland and the Vyborg castle. We watched some action on the docks where gypsum and coal are either coming or going. This city has been part of Finland in the past but Russia claimed it back after WW2.


Our Russian language skills are rudimentary at best but we are improving our abilities in reading the Cyrillic script. We have acquired Russian sim cards, explored the sights of historic Vyborg and watched a street procession with stilt walkers, band and mime artists.

Accommodation for tomorrow has been a challenge – it is in short supply, maybe because Russians love to escape to the country each weekend. We have found something, maybe a bit dodgy … stay tuned for details!

Close shaves

12 August 2018

Vyborg – Primorsk – Ozerki, Russia

That is referring to the traffic not the barbershop!

Warm weather continues here. We have slept without blankets now for weeks as it does not cool down much during the night. There was some overnight rain last night; the morning sky was overcast and the breeze was cool.

The road to Primorsk was patchy (the bitument that is) and the traffic initially heavy-ish but it diminished a little as we progressed. This area is not especially scenic, featuring forest much of the way, a stretch of railway, occasional glimpses of the sea and few towns of interest.

Primorsk was the only major town on our route today. It could be described as dismal but there were a few bright spots that made a good impression. The first was a bread kiosk that Ian noticed, where we bought a piping hot bread ring with savoury filling and a bread pasty filled with melted stretchy cheese – yum! Why aren’t there more of these everywhere? They were too hot to eat immediately so we consumed them at the outdoor table of a cafe (one of few in the town) while we drank coffee. The cafe was divided into a family friendly decorated in brilliant colours and an adult area in more muted tones.

Nearby was a small market where about half a dozen vendors were selling their produce – dried fish displayed on a car bonnet, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, zucchinis, fennel seeds, spring onions, basil, dill and fresh flowers. There were also memorials marking the 70th anniversary of a WW2 victory in 1944.

Back on the road again we experienced a few close encounters with drivers who did not feel the need to leave us much space. However, overall the traffic was not too bad. At one point we passed close to the sea and followed a short side track to view the beach. The area had been comprehensively trashed by previous visitors which, to put it politely, detracted from our enjoyment.

We are staying overnight in a tiny village, Ozerki, in accommodation that is pretty basic but overpriced, comparable with our benchmark of 2010 – the Cape Jervis Motel ($80 for run down, not clean enough room with no potable water provided). Ozerki doesn’t have a lot to offer apart from a shop called Продукты (Products – accurate if not imaginitive) and the Russian Orthodox Church of St Nikolaya Chudotvortsa. We bought fresh cucumbers and tomatoes from a roadside stall near here and cheese from Продукты and made a salad to go with our instant noodles. We can still cook!

Tomorrow – St Petersburg!


We are cool

13 August 2018

Ozerki to Zelenogorsk by bike – then by train to St Petersburg

In all senses – it rained overnight and by morning the temperature had dropped. As it was Sunday there was little traffic so we rode off towards St Petersburg. We passed a red and white lighthouse almost completely obscured by trees, several abandoned shops, a few small villages and some unlittered beaches. The bus stops along the road broke the monotony of the landscape that is mainly forest, forest and more forest.

The traffic increased during the morning so it was a relief to find an off-road walking and bike path (in variable condition) for the last 5 or so kilometres into Zelenogorsk from where we took a train to St Petersburg. Ticket purchasing was aided by Google translate – I held up my phone so the woman could read what we wanted in Russian and I could avoid revealing my bad accent.

St Petersburg is a big place, but not too bad for cycling on a Sunday. There are trams and trolley buses and lots to take in. We made our way to Vasilievsky Island to find our Warmshowers hosts – not easy to do but we eventually succeeded. Sasha (designer and illustrator) and Vlad (cook) live in a tiny apartment in an 8 storey building. The area around here has many medium and high rise apartment buildings, not all in a good state of repair. Sasha is an aspiring triathlete and had just completed a swim around an island in the Neva River, after which she needed to take antibiotics to counteract any effects from the poor water quality.

After drinking a cup of Karelian tea, we went out to walk a km or so to the Gulf of Finland along an expensively engineered and landscaped canal that should be a public recreation asset but has an air of delapidation. Near the sea is a view of many massive high rise buildings, football stadium, huge freeway, cruise ship terminal and the Lahkta Centre, an 87 storey skyscraper.

Changing plans

14 August 2018

St Petersburg, Russia

With a healthy dose of cynicism, the locals here in St Petersburg call these ‘Baba Yaga’ buildings. Baba Yaga is a Russian mythical, witch woman with a house on chickens legs. One of Musorgsky’s pictures at the exhibition was the house on chicken legs. He probably had something else in mind.


A small bombshell went of in our heads last night when we discovered that the only ferry sailing from St Petersburg to Tallin THIS MONTH was on 26 August – no good for us. We’d already decided we’d had enough of fast Russian drivers on narrow country roads and had planned to bale out and take the ferry to Estonia. As there are twice daily sailings between the other Baltic ports we didn’t bother to check. However it seems that there is much less demand for travel to or from St Petersburg and we’d been caught out.


After some scrabbling around we confirmed that we can take our bikes (assembled) on a slow train (you know, like Australian trains) to Ivangorod on the Estonian border. This mini-crisis has precipitated a decision to skip Moscow and save those days for the Baltic States.

So, we left Sasha and Vlad’s apartment but agreed to have dinner together before we leave St Petersburg and before Vlad returns to his job in the Karelian forests.

We spent the day on the streets of SPB and found it challenging. It is a huge city with chaotic traffic and poor accessibility for bikes and pedestrians. One wouldn’t want to navigate the streets and footpaths in a wheel chair. In fact we’ve seen no wheelchairs and few cyclists.


Rimsky-Korsakov outside the Admiralty

The city has many canals lined with kilometres of grand or once-grand buildings. The waterfront is rather like Bordeaux but on a larger scale and without Baron Haussman’s finesse. The repair and conservation tasks must be daunting and are not on schedule.

Speaking of daunting tasks, we are catching our breath today and will make our first assault on the Hermitage tomorrow with a two-day pass.

We briefly visited New Holland Island, a depressingly regimented cultural centre and theme-park developed in recent years by Roman Abramovich, billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club and confidante of Vladimir Putin. NHI’s claims to be the coolest, hippest neighbourhood in SPB are belied by the military-style security guards and the chummy totalitarianism of its attendance rules. It is well-manicured but we found it oppressive and left.


Pink flamingos trapped on New Holland Island

We enjoyed a belated breakfast in an unassuming cafeteria near the Mariinsky Theatre although the food seemed more lunch-aligned. To be fair on that establishment, I think we may have selected from the lunch-time spread. We were attracted to that because a tray of freshly baked stuffed capsicums had just emerged from the kitchen. The food was wholesome if a little bland. The cappuccinos were terrible. My rule henceforth: in Slavic countries stick to black coffee.

The Mariinsky Theatre must have an impressive depth of repertoire and skill at bumping shows if their forthcoming program is anything to go by: Aida one night, Faust the next followed by Parsifal, Onegin, etc in quick succession.

We couldn’t check in to the Capital Hotel until 2pm but the almost comatose concierge let us stash our bags behind his counter. I hate to think how long he’d been on duty but his head was hitting the counter as he repeatedly lost his struggle and dropped off.

We looped past some of the big landmarks, braved a bus lane on Nevsky Prospect for a few blocks and then tried for a better coffee in the unfortunately named and decorated Buddy Cafe. We should have known better. We eschewed milk and asked for espresso but what we got was ristretissimo – ridiculously short in a largish cup.

There are few outdoor cafes so we must learn to spot eateries without the usual cues of tables and umbrellas. We ate excellent Georgian cuisine in a rather swanky restaurant near our hotel while a thunderstorm sent the evening crowds scurrying for shelter. The staff didn’t visibly turn theirs noses up at our shabby appearance.

Oh, and by the way, there were many impressive, gold-trimmed churches.

Tourism central

15 August 2018

St Petersburg

After a breakfast of black coffee and pishki (donuts) we visited the Hermitage. We joined what seemed to us a long queue at the entrance for visitors with the foresight to buy tickets online and thereby avoid queuing. Once the doors opened our non-queue moved fairly quickly and we were in. The place was already thronging! It became clear during the morning that the purchase of online tickets is well worth the small additional expense as the huge queues in Palace Square were glacial throughout the morning.


Cannibal Tours at the Hermitage

An early, fortuitous decision to turn left when everybody else turned right put us in the almost deserted Art Deco wing. It was brilliant with extensive, artfully presented prints, magazine covers and dismembered books including Russian translations of Homer and Kipling. This was the best presented and most overlooked section we saw – delightful.

Rejoining the masses we were overwhelmed by the marble statues, Dutch masters, throne rooms, furniture, peacock clock, parquetry, ceilings and crowds. The salon-hung Rubens room was stunning. Bacchus is more than Rubenesque.

The presentation of all these riches does not do them justice with the emphasis being on the quantity of treasures more than the specialness of any or each of them. Lighting is often patchy and glary and even poor Napoleon’s face is in shade.

Climate control in the building was certainly struggling either due to the unseasonably hot summer that is drawing to a close or the tens of thousands of warm bodies wandering around. Unfiltered sunlight streams in onto irreplaceable paintings and furniture and windows are wedged open for fresh air.

Unfortunately, the palace was designed for the genteel elite and not the lumpen masses and crowd flow is difficult with many choke points and cross currents. There were a few brave souls in wheelchairs doing it tough and spending a fair bit of time waiting at the scarce lifts.

The queue for the women’s toilets was epic while men strolled directly to vacant urinals or stalls. (Sorry for the graphic details but this worldwide problem isn’t going to be fixed until we can talk about it plainly.)

The third floor was dedicated to a 20th century Italian Arte Povera exhibition. The works were presented dismissively and warranted more care and attention.


‘I just haven’t got a thing to wear’, says Venus.

We had a quiet afternoon and then braved peak hour traffic to see the Smolny Cathedral. The blue and white church dominates quite an austere, institutional part of the city near the great Neva River.


Good parking!

We returned to our hotel via the Neva embankment, Lenin Square, many bridges, a few canals, one bicycle lane and lots of crazy traffic.

We enjoyed a Georgian aperitif to keep us going until our dinner date with Vlad & Sasha at 10:30. Leaving our bikes at the hotel, we took the Metro from Spasskaya to Markovskaya. The escalators are vertiginous, taking us way down below street and river-bed level. With memories of the seige of Leningrad, the subways are extra deep to serve as bomb shelters.

The Metro is spotless, beautiful, fast and heavily-used. Neo-classical and art deco themes vye for attention. We will explore the Metro more thoroughly before we leave. When a terrorist bombing near Spasskaya in 2017 discouraged residents from using the Metro for a few days the city came to a standstill.

From Markovskaya we walked down Nevsky Prospect to the Caffe Italia. My initial ambivalent impressions of this famous street were totally revised. It is beautiful in the evening and away from the tourist ground zero. It’s necessary to walk to appreciate it. Even cycling is too fast and the traffic too distracting to see into the narrow shopfronts and appreciate the many eye-catching things.


Moscovskyy Vokzal – railway station

We had a very pleasant time with our new St Petersburg friends. Rosalie ate pasta with petrushka – not Stravinsky’s ballet – petrushka means parsley. We shared a taxi home as the Metro was mostly closed after midnight. The taxi driver was quite adventurous in the almost empty streets.

And so to bed way past our bedtime.

The Impressionists

16 August 2018

Until today we had not been inside a St Peterburg Russian Orthodox church so we selected the Church of the Assumption of Mary, located on one of the embankments overlooking the Neva but some distance away from the tourist crowds. This impressively beautiful church, surprisingly, hardly rates a mention as a tourist attraction. I put on a head scarf and Ian wore long trousers. It was quiet with few visitors along with a Russian film crew that appeared to be filming for a documentary. The interior is overwhelmingly ornate. During the Soviet era it was put to other uses (warehouse and skating rink) so it was in bad shape until renovations were done during the 1990s.

Nearby are a couple of museums, one on an ice breaker ship, another in a submarine, both on the Neva. The St Petersburg Mining University, also nearby, features two dramatic sculptures at the entrance – The Abduction of Proserpina and Hercules and Antaeus.


It is hard work riding around on a bike because of uneven surfaces, high kerbs, lack of opportunity to cross the road and heavy traffic. To be fair though, St Petersburg has many pedestrian crossings and motorists respect them if you step out assertively. Traffic light-controlled crossings are common but some allow only 30 seconds to cross 6 or 8 lanes with a high median strip in the middle (count down indicators are everywhere – these are a big help).

Day 2 at the Hermitage enabled us to view the Impressionist exhibitions in the General Staff Building – this is the yellow semicircular building on the other side of Palace Square that looks across to the Winter Palace. On Wednesdays opening hours are extended to 9pm we we went in the early evening when there were no queues and fewer visitors. This building has been extensively and expensively renovated – it’s pretty schmick. We enjoyed seeing many famous works by Degas, Monet, Picasso, Cezanne, Kandinsky and others.


Out of Russia

17 August 2018

St Petersburg to Ivangorod and Narva

We have our train tickets and are waiting at Baltiyskiy Vokzal for our train to Ivangorod on the Estonian border.


Major railway stations in Russia are called ‘vokzals’. There are several explanations for this and they all relate to Vauxhall Station in London. The more entertaining and least respectful are similar to those stories about why Europeans call those large hopping marsupials kangaroos. The most credible explanation is that the first Russian railway station was built at a popular pleasure garden in Pavlovsk that was modelled on Vauxhall Gardens in London. That railway station became known as a vokzal and subsequently so did all major stations.

We spent our last morning in SPB travelling on the Metro to look at the stylish stations and their environs. In Soviet times, a large investment was made in the Metro and the stations were lavishly and tastefully styled in neo-classical and art deco themes to celebrate and elevate the workers who built and used them.

Marble, brass, bronze, mosaics and cut glass adorn these proletarian shrines. Friezes of noble male and female workers and busts of Lenin are everywhere. I’ll let the pictures do the talking but suffice to say the system is clean, well-maintained, efficient and heavily used.

Trains run at 3 minute intervals so there’s no need to rush to catch that one at the platform as another will be along in a jiffy. Single trip tokens cost less than a dollar. Polite young locals leap to their feet to offer their seats to silver-haired passengers.

Many of the stations are deep underground. One can barely see the bottom from the top of the vertiginous escalators. Smartly uniformed women sleep in booths to monitor possible hooliganism.

We boarded the train with a few other cyclists and it steadily filled until an on-time departure.

We struggled to make our bicycles seem small and only a small inconvenience to the other passengers and train staff. Others successfully hid their uncontained pets from the conductor.

Hot and stuffy, we pulled out into the sunset and rattled and bumped our way through industrial areas, weekend dachas and vegetable plots then scrubby farmland. The dilapidated villages looked romantically rustic in the late summer evening light.


This train took us to Ivangorod on the Estonian border

We’ve made it to Estonia. Good night.

All quiet on the Estonian front

18 August 2018

Narva to Kortsialuse, Estonia

(Apologies to Erich Maria Remarque)

Narva, a fort city, is situated on the Narva River which forms the border between Estonia and Russia. It has been the location of many battles, most recently during WW2 when great damage was done to the old town. All appears peaceful now though. We saw a line of cars queued up to go across the border and the town cleaning team sweeping up as we ventured out for breakfast.


We have had a long day on the road, much of it along the coast. Narva-Jõesuu, where the Narva River reaches the sea, is a holiday area with beach access and lots of accommodation. There are also some large abandoned apartment buildings.

We followed Eurovelo Route 13 for much of the way, making slow progress towards our destination. We had some stretches along rough unsealed tracks that were about as bad as Kangaroo Island! Interesting sights were a bride and groom having photos taken with the sea as backdrop and two young Belgian cyclists with way too much luggage including a Viking scarecrow.

There were a number of small towns, all of which had little or no commerce and few people around. We went into a shop in Sillimae that was invisible to us until we saw some people emerge from it. Like the shops in Russia, it had a wide selection of goods available, a significant proportion of which were alcoholic beverages of all kinds.

There are high cliffs above the sea giving a good view of the Gulf of Finland and a couple of islands far offshore to the north. By mid afternoon we decided to follow Garmin (GPS) rather than the bike route and this gave us a variety of sealed roads and forest and farm tracks, while avoiding the highway to Tallinn which is not ideal for our purposes. We saw reaping of crops, two storks in a field and one on a nest, farms and villages, apple trees (fruit tested by Ian and found to be inedible) and a large slag heap that had been vegetated and turned into a downhill gokart track. No shops, no cafes, no bakeries.

The last 12km on a dirt road through an uninhabited area made it hard to believe that we were headed towards our accommodation. We had no idea whether we would be able to get an evening meal and were mentally preparing for instant noodles. Emerging on to the main road though, our hostel appeared and everything we needed was available – cold beer, hot meal, shower and bed. Our companions here are a group who look as though they are on a work team-building jaunt – they are playing musical chairs and other developmental games.